Ellington’s first venture to New York was in February of 1923. He was asked by bandleader and banjoist, Elmer Snowden to join his ensemble for an engagement in Harlem’s Lafayette Theater. Ellington recollected his time with Snowden, “We [Ellington, Miley, and Hardwick] joined him in New York. It was another world to us, and we’d sit on stage and keep a straight face. I realized that all cities had different personalities…I also learned a lot about show business from Sweatman.” After the run at the Lafayette Theater and some time spent at Barron Wilkins Exclusive Club, Sweatman chose to pursue the vaudeville circuit. Ellington and his friends from Washington, D.C., Greer and Hardwick, were left without work. The three men prowled the Harlem scene, where they discovered clubs that remained opened after dawn and speakeasies that provided an endless stream of illicit alcohol. The gregariously natured Ellington and Greer quickly made the acquaintance of the trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley and trombonist, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton however, steady employment never materialized, and the group returned home.
Spurred by inestimable ambition, and the recommendation of Fats Waller, Ellington and his friends returned to New York. According to Ellington, Waller promised him employment however, “Everything had gone wrong and there was no job.” After successfully peddling a few compositions and remaining in the entertainment circles, Ellington and his ensemble were offered a contract at the Hollywood Club at 49th Street and Broadway. The aggregate consisted of Ellington (piano), Greer (drums), Hardwick (saxophones), Snowden (banjo), Charlie Irvis (trombone) and Miley on trumpet. In 1924, this band augmented its size. The additions, which included Nanton (trombone), and Harry Carney (baritone saxophone), would prove to be immensely transformative. With his suave manner and adept charm, Ellington assumed leadership of the group and replaced Snowden with George Francis on banjo. With his newfangled autonomy, Ellington was no longer consigned to perform the music of others; more importantly, he now had a vehicle by which to perform and disseminate his compositions.
In November of 1924, The Washingtonians arrived at the Blu-Disc studio for their first recording under Ellington’s leadership and documented two sides, “Choo Choo (I Gotta Hurry Home)” and “Rainy Nights (Rainy Days).” The personnel consisted of Duke Ellington (leader, piano), Bubber Miley (trumpet), Charlie Irvis (trombone), Otto Hardwick (alto sax), George Francis (banjo), and Sonny Greer (drums). For the first time, Ellington was given composer credit on a recording. This marked the commencement of an illustrious career that spanned nearly five decades.
Between November of 1924 and June of 1926, Ellington’s ensemble produced only ten sides within a period of five recording sessions. Likely discontented with the meager output, the leader successfully procured an arrangement with the prestigious Brunswick imprint and its affiliate, Vocalion, which was purchased in late 1924. The label’s focus was on race records and popular music; the latter category included sides by Isham Jones and Al Jolson. On May 28, 1926, the company secured its landmark hot jazz recording with the Erskine Tate Orchestra. It produced two sides, “Stomp Off, Let’s Go!” and “Static Strut,” Voc 1027, and featured a twenty-four-year-old trumpet phenom from New Orleans—Louis Armstrong. Vocalion’s subsequent breakthrough session would follow later that year with the burgeoning band led by Ellington.
In the next installment, we will explore the year 1926 and Ellington’s seminal composition, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”